Mars is home to the tallest mountain in the Solar System, Olympus Mons. This is an extinct volcano three times the size of Everest, an enormous monument to the incredible volcanic past of the planet. But perhaps that past is not as remote as we have previously believed.
Observations have so far suggested that no volcanic event took place on Mars for at least a few million years. A new paper, published in Icarus, reports some evidence challenging that. Astronomers have found a small region that appears to be a volcanic deposit in the Cerberus Fossae fissures system. The team believes that this deposit could be as old as 220,000 years and as young as 50,000 years. If this is the case volcanic activity might still happen on Mars today.
“This feature is a mysterious dark deposit, covering an area slightly larger than Washington D.C. It has a high thermal inertia, includes high‑calcium pyroxene-rich material, and is distributed symmetrically around a segment of the Cerberus Fossae fissure system in Elysium Planitia, atypical of aeolian, or wind-driven, deposits in the region. This feature is similar to dark spots on the Moon and Mercury suggested to be explosive volcanic eruptions,” lead author Dr David Horvath, from the Planetary Science Institute, said in a statement.
“This may be the youngest volcanic deposit yet documented on Mars. If we were to compress Mars geologic history into a single day, this would have occurred in the very last second.”
It is possible that this eruption threw ash into the atmosphere as high as 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). Impressive for sure, but the team sees it more as a last hurrah from the Martian volcanism. That said, Cerberus Fossae is the location of the strongest marsquakes detected by NASA’s InSight. While it's not certain, there could be a link between the two.
“The young age of this deposit absolutely raises the possibility that there could still be volcanic activity on Mars and it is intriguing that the most powerful Marsquakes detected by NASA's InSight mission are sourced from the Cerberus Fossae,” Horvath explained. “However, sustaining magma near the surface of Mars so late in Mars history with no associated lava flows would be difficult and thus a deeper magmatic source would likely be required to create this eruption.”
As always when it comes to the discovery of something unexpected on Mars there’s a question to answer. Could this hinder or help the possibility of life on the Red Planet? Volcanic activity would certainly help. Ascending magma could keep the region at a mild temperature, enough to thaw underground icy deposits as well as creating conditions that could be favorable for microbial life.